Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation and Palestinian-Israeli Peace
May 11, 2011
Is the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo on May 4 good for the “peace process?” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, President Jimmy Carter, and veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery all believe it is. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his government vehemently insist that it is not. Half the Democrats in the Senate and the usual suspects in the House of Representatives have, as is their custom, lined up behind the Israeli government’s position, while the White House has been more reserved. Since the “peace process” has long been on life-support, if not dead, this may be the wrong question. We might ask instead, “Is reconciliation between the Palestinian political factions good for the Palestinian and Israeli people?”
It is certainly good for the Palestinian people, first because it has long been a broad-based popular desire. Calls for unity have been raised regularly by Palestinian participants in the weekly demonstrations against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. It was a demand of the newly established March 15th Palestinian youth movement, whose name comes from demonstrations held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that day to demand national unity.
The next day, Abbas, with the wind of the Arab spring at his back, declared his willingness to travel to Gaza to conduct unity talks. In addition to the demands of their people, the disarray of their Arab state patrons encouraged Fatah and Hamas to reach an agreement, vague though it is. The Mubarak regime was Abbas’s strongest supporter in the Arab world. Deposed Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman tried to pressure Hamas into accepting a deal with Abbas on vague terms with promises that Egypt would address Hamas concerns after they signed. Egypt’s collaboration with Israel to keep the Gaza Strip sealed off from the rest of the world effectively bolstered Fatah’s position by demonstrating Hamas’s incapacity to deliver the Palestinian people’s most basic needs. Syria’s support may no longer be useful to Hamas. There are reports in the Arab press that Hamas will move its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, whose Emir has a soft spot in his heart for Hamas despite hosting the US Middle East Command.
Abbas was also weakened by Al Jazeera’s revelation of the “Palestine Papers” in January. They suggested that despite Abbas’s offer of concessions well beyond the Palestinian national consensus, this was insufficient to reach an agreement with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government.
A unified Palestinian leadership will be more representative, hence more likely to be able to deliver on any agreement it might reach, and also in a stronger position vis a vis Israel in any peace negotiations that might be held. PM Netanyahu somberly intoned that President Abbas can either have peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. He seems incapable of understanding that in addition to responding to popular Palestinian and regional Arab pressures, it was necessary for Abbas to seek an agreement with Hamas because the Palestinian Authority could not reach a peace agreement with Israel on terms any Palestinian would accept.
No Israeli government has ever offered Palestinians a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital and anything approaching sovereignty over its territory, its underground water resources, its borders, and its airspace. The 1993 Oslo Accords did not stipulate the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel’s Labor Party introduced a plank in its platform accepting a Palestinian state only on the eve of its electoral defeat in 1996. The subsequent Likud government was too intransigent even for President Clinton. At Taba in January 2001 the two sides came “agonizingly close to reaching an agreement” including the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, as the lead negotiators for both sides – Yossi Beilin and Yasir Abed Rabbo – wrote in a New York Times op-ed (Aug. 1, 2001). Prime Minister Ehud Barak cut those negotiations off shortly before the Israeli elections that ousted him from power, claiming that he did not want to obligate the incoming government. Since opinion polls correctly predicted an overwhelming defeat for Barak and Labor, why didn’t he let the negotiators finish their job and turn the election into a plebiscite on the agreement? It isn’t necessary to discuss the entrenched opposition of Prime Ministers Sharon and Netanyahu to terms acceptable to any Palestinian leader. Netanyahu vehemently opposed a Palestinian state until June 2009. His settlement expansion policy since then has ensured that his words were even more deceitful than usual.
The abysmal performance of the Obama administration on Palestinian-Israeli peace has also encouraged the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. Why would a president elected with a strong popular mandate based in part on repudiation of the Middle East policies of his predecessor not seize the opportunity to press for something that would have substantially repaired the grievous damage to the credibility and national security of the United States in the region of the world which is arguably most central to our national security? Yes, it would have expended a great deal of political capital. Obama would have been mercilessly attacked by the Zionist lobby, its acolytes in Congress, and the birthers, who would have taken this as proof-positive that he is a foreign-born Muslim. But many American Jews, who overwhelmingly voted for Obama, would have strongly defended a serious effort to end the conflict. Aren’t presidents elected to lead?
The Fatah-Hamas agreement will enable President Abbas to present a united front when the Palestinian Authority asks the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state, as it plans to do in September. Although it may break the current impasse and put increased international pressure on Israel, there are also problems with this strategy. Some diaspora Palestinians are critical of it because it limits Palestinian aspirations to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and excludes their voices from Palestinian political decision-making.
Whether or not the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation results in more effective action at the UN, it is good for the Palestinian people and ultimately good for the Israeli people. It expresses the long overdue recognition that the twenty-year-long US-brokered “peace process” has failed. The Palestinian people will therefore need to rely, first and foremost on themselves, and secondly on other international forces – the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, young Israelis who are working in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, European states, perhaps more democratic Arab regimes, and eventually China. This will require more democratic Palestinian grassroots politics. A more unified and more democratic Palestinian people will be more capable of reaching a peace agreement with the Israeli people that guarantees the rights and the security of both peoples in Israel/Palestine.
Joel Beinin is a long time JVP member and the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University.